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Tuesday, 25 February 2014 00:32

'You Can't Take It with You' provides a pleasant reminder

Written by Tina Farmer
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The Details

Mitchell Manar and Catherine Athenson as Tony and Alice
Mitchell Manar and Catherine Athenson as Tony and Alice Photo by James Byard/WUSTL Photos

Ah, bliss! Here's a toast to the post-WWI, emerging from the Depression leisure class. Particularly when they are as delightfully portrayed as by the student actors in Washington University's "You Can't Take It with You." The show breezes along, and right past, the bleak realities of the period with a joyful self-indulgence. And, as pithy as the title may seem, there is, after all, a genuine truth hiding underneath the straightforward statement.

The set, designed by Robert M. Morgan and properties designer Emily Frei, gorgeously references the period, and establishes the comfortably middle class attitude of the show. The period costumes, by Bonnie Kruger, helped to reinforce each character, and moved quite nicely on the actors, a testament to the craft of the costumer and staff. Lighting, by Sean M. Savoie, the sound, and special effects are used to great effect, and occasionally quite loud and bright. Even the romantic shift of light during the love scenes, while perhaps over-the-top, is still sweetly effective.

The story features the bohemian Sycamore family, who have abandoned the day-to-day toil of meaningless occupation to devote time to activities that interest them. Mother Penelope is, by turns, painter and playwright. Father Paul spends his days in the basement, manufacturing fireworks with friendly interloper Mr. Di Pinna. Daughter Essie pursues her love of dance, though she may be better suited to focus her efforts on her candies and confections, while her husband Ed delights in his printing press and xylophone.

Grandfather Martin Venderhof, the family patriarch, encourages the simple pursuit of happiness among his offspring and their spouses. There's some plain spoken truth to grandfather's belief that people ought to spend more time doing what pleases them, and the show follows a circuitous path of frivolity, with an abundance of ancillary characters, including a Russian émigré and his countess friend, a confused but earnest IRS agent, and a drunken actress.

Then there's the beautiful and practical daughter, Alice. Though Alice loves her family dearly, she also enjoys working in an office and is nervous that her family's eccentricities will interfere with her love of the boss's son. As a famous playwright once noted, "all's well that ends well," and in the case of this production, the journey to the happy ending is an engaging, slapstick affair filled with humor and homily.

The youthful and enthusiastic cast does a splendid job referencing the style and patter of the period, at least if the movies I've seen are any indication. They move confidently, with faced paced, clipped dialogue and an abundance of sight gags that kept the audience chuckling along.

Schuyler Atkins, as Penelope Sycamore, kicks things off with an exuberance that is not easily contained. She personifies a woman incapable of dismay and maintains a lovely, bright presence throughout the show. Robert M. Kapeller and Zack Schultz, as Paul and Mr. Di Pinna, play off each other well and match Atkins in enthusiasm, while Mary Reischmann and Heonseok Lee charm as the playful Essie and her husband Ed.

Will Jacobs anchors the family as genial patriarch Martin Vanderhof, doing a nice job of affecting age with a gentle touch and sincerity, while Catherine Athenson and Mitchell Manar are spot on perfection as two kids in love. Manar is particularly endearing as he embraces his future in-laws' curious behavior with open arms, seemingly liberated by their happiness. There's an earnest insistence to his character that works quite well when he finally confronts his father.

The rest of the cast also turn in polished performances, and Jeffery Matthews directs with confidence, skillfully and comically keeping the large cast in near continuous motion.

"You Can't Take It with You" continues through March 2, 2014 at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. For reservations or more information, visit

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